WASHINGTON - The big energy bill headed for approval in the U.S. House of Representatives isn't all bad news for those automakers that fear tougher fuel economy standards.
Yes, it would require a five-billion-gallon cut in light-truck fuel consumption in the 2004-2010 period - a provision that Republican sponsors tout as a turning point for long-stagnant motor vehicle fuel economy.
But the bill also would extend the fuel-economy credits that automakers earn for producing vehicles that can run on fuels besides gasoline. They get the credits regardless of whether the vehicles ever use a drop of an alternative fuel, such as ethanol.
The offsetting provisions are evidence that automakers, while certainly engaged in a serious fight over fuel economy in Washington, may not be facing the dire regulatory emergency that some companies and their allies have suggested.
For each so-called flexible-fuel vehicle that an automaker produces, it can add a credit of up to 1.2 mpg to its Corporate Average Fuel Economy score, or CAFE. For the Big 3, who are struggling to meet CAFE standards, the credits from hundreds of thousands of flexible-fuel vehicles produced each year give them breathing room. Current standards are 27.5 mpg for trucks and 20.7 mpg for light trucks.
A way to burn more?
The flexible-fuel credit program was to expire with the 2004 model year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has the option of adopting rules by the end of this year to extend the program, but at a reduced level, to 2008.
The energy bill scheduled for consideration by the full House in the next two weeks would extend the program, by law, at its current level.
The bill's claimed energy savings 'may turn out to be less than meets the eye,' complained Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Waxman contended that by continuing to give CAFE credits to automakers for flexible-fuel vehicles that always burn gasoline, the legislation would cause fuel consumption to rise by an amount far in excess of the targeted savings of five billion gallons.
Automakers have argued they need to put more of the vehicles on the road to encourage alternative fuel suppliers to make necessary investments in production facilities and filling stations.
Americans use about 350 million gallons of gasoline every day, according to the American Petroleum Institute. So, a five-billion-gallon savings over seven model years would be equivalent to the gasoline consumed by all motor vehicles in only about two weeks.
Few vote for 40 mpg
The House committee, after soundly rejecting two proposals to add significantly tougher CAFE standards on Wednesday, July 18, approved the bill by a 50-5 vote on July 19.
'This is a committee that is owned and operated by the auto industry,' said Dan Becker, director of the global warming program at the Sierra Club. He predicted that tougher CAFE requirements stand a far better chance in the full House.